Obama in Egypt June 2009
At the J Street Conference last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter participated in a panel discussion, "Can America Still Help to Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -- and How?" Dr Slaughter, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, remarked that US "relations are strained with the old governments in the Middle East and with the new governments in the Middle East." She went on to say "those governments desperately want us to engage in the peace process" and that increasing our involvement was the best way to improve our relations with these countries.
I would argue that Slaughter is most probably wrong and that further stepped-up involvement in the so-called "peace process" will only lead to further alienation between the United States and Middle Eastern countries.
Although one heard calls at J Street for continuing or re-invigorating the "peace process" in order to keep alive the two-state solution, the more dominant message repeated throughout the conference was that the "peace process is dead." In his opening conference remarks. J Street's head, Jeremy Ben-Ami, stated that currently there is "no viable peace process." Israeli Hillel Ben-Sasson, co-founder of Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah, promised the very first panel that "there won't be any significant peace talks in the next 10 years" -- the hegemony of the Right in Israel is that strong.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian National Initiative, the third largest political movement among the Palestinians, told the second panel, "There is no peace process. It is dead. The peace process has become an alternative to peace…. There is no balance between the parties. There will be no solution until there is a change in the balance-of-power."
At the first day's plenum, Amram Mitzna, a former Major General in the IDF, former Mayor of Haifa and a one-time Labor candidate for Prime Minister, stated that for now we will not be able to achieve a comprehensive compromise such as the Geneva Agreement. At best, we "can reach agreement on borders and security." Mitzna sees "no viable alternative to Netanyahu" as Prime Minister and believes "US policy after the coming elections is very important." He hopes Obama will address the problem, and argued that Netanyahu "needs to be forced in this arena."
Responding to Mitzna, Avishay Braverman, a Labor Member of the Knesset and Ha'aretz columnist, quipped "If we wait for the American President, we will have to wait for the Messiah." Braverman seems to have the better grasp of American politics.
At yet another panel Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli author and journalist, passionately argued for the two-state solution, but his description of where we are today was most bleak. "The end game is what you see. We are at the the end game. [The Right] thinks it is sustainable. Their goal is to use hasbara to sell it. The Mainstream Right thinks they can keep going."
What leads Dr. Slaughter-- a former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, the initial Director of Policy Planning at the State Department in the Obama Administration, and now back at Princeton as a Professor of Politics and International Affairs-- to view the situation so differently. Perhaps, she doesn't. Slaughter didn't tell J Street that "peace" was in the interest of the US, but rather that the "peace process" was in its interest. "Failure to engage undercuts everything else we do in the region. We cannot say we stand for democracy, human rights and justice in the Middle East if we do not do it in Israel-Palestine."
Sounds more like a public relations problem rather than a conflict of values. In fact, Slaughter revealed her real concerns in a recent piece she wrote grading Obama for Foreign Policy Magazine. (Sort of like grading your own essay in my opinion.)
Obama's biggest failure has been the management of Israel -- not the failure to achieve a peace agreement, which is a serial failure on the part of many presidents -- but in framing the entire issue in such a way that once the United States had demanded an end to the settlements and Israel refused, any subsequent U.S. accommodation of Israel looks like capitulation to the very Muslim world that Obama set out to court. As a result, it is still not clear that Obama will accomplish one of his own top goals: resetting the U.S. relationship with the Muslim communities around the world.
Slaughter suggests a return to the "peace process" as a solution to a conflict management problem, not as a means to conflict resolution as J Street hopes.
How does the United States keep good relations with Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, while at the same time maintaining its hegemony over the new realities in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq?
The Arab monarchies have one overriding interest, keeping their autocratic, kleptocratic families in charge of their states or statelets for as long as possible. While a few of them might have well-meaning intentions for their populaces and the region, all will sacrifice whatever principles are necessary in order to maintain their family power and control. For those along the Gulf, the distribution of the oil spoils is the big prize.
Except for maybe Morocco, US military support and defense is absolutely essential to their security. These regimes could not survive without the US guarantee of protection from regime-changing internal and external threats. They will buck US direction when they perceive it to threaten their own rule, but certainly not to support Palestinian self-determination. We have seen such behavior for as long as there has been a so-called "peace process." The closest any of them reached to outright rebellion against the United States over the Palestinians is when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited Crawford and coldly informed Bush II that if the United States was unable to resolve Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia would go its own way and protect its own interests. The 9/11 attack on the United States occurred shortly afterwards, and Saudi Arabia, fearing a severe US backlash, dropped the Palestinians off of their agenda where it has remained to this day.
Other Arab countries have had more than their fair share of despotic dictators with pretensions to create their own family dynasties. In those no longer under such rule -- Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- domestic politics and popular opinion will increasingly play a greater factor in foreign policy decisions going forward. It will require years to establish a new internal political stability in these countries, but the days when their leadership could ignore popular opinion and cut any deal they wanted with the United States (or Israel) are over.
Even with the unlikely assumption that the Palestinians have only a secondary say in the matter, there is no conceivable US negotiation position that will satisfy the Israelis, provide sufficient cover for its repressive Arab allies, and satisfy populist sentiment in the Arab Spring nations. Active US involvement in a renewed "peace process" -- which will only serve as an excuse for dampening the conflict at best and as a cover for continued Israeli expansion and settlement at worst -- will only alienate the Arabs further and will not reset US relations with the Muslim world.
Obama has demonstrated the likelihood that a Democratic President will coerce the Israelis into serious peace negotiations. The last Republican to take on Israel was Bush I. Since then, the Republicans have evolved into being more Likudnik than the Israeli Likud and appear to view the Right Wing Israeli coalition as a role model for how to govern. There is no reason to believe that the United States can mediate a successful conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What will break the current status quo? The United States is being edged out of Iraq and is on its way to being expelled from Afghanistan. Its military is tired and the troops wants to stay home and recover for some years. There is no longer any public will for more Middle East adventures. The American people might be fear-mongered into supporting one more campaign, but unless it was very short and highly effective, the economic fallout will put an end to further military offensives in the region for at least a decade.
Middle East states are already taking the initiative. Turkey has come out from under US tutelage and has embarked upon an independent foreign policy which includes a break with Israel and enhanced support for the Palestinians. Egypt by itself will change the region's dynamics from what it has been for the last thirty years. Unless Saudi Arabia is able to reverse or severely co-opt the new Arab governments, the trend towards more populist orientations will continue. For now, the Muslim Brotherhood is on a roll. As the new Arab governments consolidate their power and become stronger, the costs to the US for continually acting as Israel's lawyer will steadily rise.
It is only a matter of time before the Arab Spring leads to revolts against the Arab monarchies. At some point some of the new Arab governments will ally themselves to movements which resemble themselves as those movements rebel against the old Royal regimes. It is hard to envision how such an anachronistic form of government - absolute monarchy - can continue to survive modernization. Nowhere has such rule continued outside the Middle East and Bhutan. Jordan, without oil to buy off its populace, appears quite vulnerable. To date Saudi Arabia has taken matters into its own hands and has so far managed to suppress a revolt against the Bahrain monarchy, but the Bahraini population has not yet given up. Throughout its history Saudi Arabia has a track record of wasting enormous sums of money on failed foreign policy strategies. There is no reason to expect that it will succeed in pulling off a regional counter-revolution to smolder the Arab Spring movements.
The main and most difficult battleground will be in Saudi Arabia itself. Despite its enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has a distressingly skewed income distribution. Keeping the ever expanding House of Saud supplied with the wealth it considers its birthright, while at the same time buying off a rapidly growing, youthful population has become a daunting task requiring, besides cash, one of the most repressive security apparatuses and extreme regime-serving religious sect money can buy. Only the last decade's rising oil prices have enabled keeping the lid on public discontent. Opening up Saudi politics is going to be a rough task. As Madawi Al-Rasheed just wrote in a perspicacious report in the Boston Review,
Saudi Arabia’s experience of the Arab Spring demonstrates that it lacks the structural conditions for mobilization, organization, and protest, let alone revolution. The economic and social deprivation, political oppression, and corruption that triggered revolutions elsewhere are all present in Saudi Arabia, but these alone are not sufficient to precipitate an uprising. Saudi Arabia does not have trade unions—the majority of its working population is foreign, which has stunted the growth of organized labor—a women’s movement, or an active student population, three factors that helped to make protests in Tunis and Cairo successful. Elsewhere in the Arab world, in the absence of these important factors, revolt stumbled, turned violent, and could not progress without serious foreign intervention. Libya is a case in point.
And that foreign intervention won’t come in Saudi Arabia, where oil ensures unconditional support from Western governments. Tunisia and Egypt were Western allies too, but they lack the kinds of resources that deter foreign meddlers. The same resources that also enable the Saudi king to appease the people....
If the delayed Arab Spring eventually reaches Saudi Arabia, it will likely be a bloody affair. Violent opposition is nothing new in Saudi Arabia, where jihadis have fought the state since 2003, and regime opponents took up arms in 1927, 1965, and 1979. In the absence of a tradition of peaceful protest and in the face of religiously sanctioned bans on even nonviolent activism, aggression against the regime and its enablers may again become the only option.
The waves of the Arab Spring will eventually reach Saudi Arabia in some form, and then Middle East transformation will be irreversible.
The statelets of the Persian Gulf will hang on to US protection for as long as possible. Small in size to begin with, their rather small ratio of citizens relative to total population, makes real statehood impossible. Despite efforts to ally with some Arab Spring movements, the Gulf States aim is to immunize themselves from internal changes. But they will not be able to avoid the developments in the rest of the Arab world once Saudi Arabia is in play. At that point, the United States will be asked to leave the region, except perhaps in Israel itself. With a much smaller footprint in the Middle East, less influence and mounting diplomatic costs for giving free rein of action to Israel, a new resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will finally become possible. Only then will the United States be able to help resolve the conflict. However, its role will be much reduced and it will no longer be the essential party.
Military conflict with Iran, and the resulting chaos, will only hasten the United States retreat from the region.